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Ugandan Militia Fights Off LRA

After terrorising Uganda for 20 years, the LRA has met its match in the form of the Arrow Boys.
By Peter Eichstaedt
At the Thursday market in Arapai, about ten kilometres outside of Soroti on Uganda’s dry eastern plains, you can get just about anything.

You can buy a cow, a goat, a bicycle, fat stalks of fresh sugar cane, dried peanuts, handmade rope, or even have your machete sharpened.

Fifty kilos of dried kasava root can be ground by hand on a flat stone into flour for bread that will feed you for a month.

The most popular item in the market is malwa, the locally made brew. It’s a lightly fermented grain served in clay pots with hot water and sipped through a long reed.

You can sit in the shade of the thatched roofs for several hours and drink all you want for about 25 US cents. It’s the way locals spend the day, meet friends and catch up on the latest news.

That locals safely walk miles to crowd this market is due to a feared homegrown militia called the Arrow Boys formed less than three years ago.

These local fighters have quickly become the only organised force to defeat the infamous Lords Resistance Army, which for the past 20 years has terrorised northern Uganda, southern Sudan and eastern Congo.

The LRA has kidnapped thousands of boys and girls, converting them into vicious child soldiers and sex slaves. Those who resist are brutally killed or maimed and left to die.

But the Arrow Boys are inflicting serious losses on the LRA.

When the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued indictments this past fall against LRA leader Joseph Kony and four of his top commanders, one was already dead.

“We put him out of action,” said Robert Adiama, one of the militia founders who served as its top intelligence officer. He is now the district’s top government official.

“The LRA faced their first blow in Teso,” he said of the region around Soroti, adding that the Arrow Boys killed or captured more than 40 LRA commanders in the past couple of years.

The key to the Arrow Boys’ success against the LRA has been strong community support and an efficient intelligence network.

“When the LRA is going to move south from Pader,” said Adiama, “we know about it three days ahead of time.” Pader is one of Uganda’s northern districts where the LRA continues to cause havoc despite the presence of the Uganda military.

“We help the people,” he said. “We prepare the community to respond and ask the government for help in doing it.”

The government support comes in weapons distributed throughout villages. And, when an LRA attack occurs, the militia is quickly formed and pursues the rebels.

“The only way to control the situation is rapid response,” explained Adiama.

Because the Arrow Boys have been so successful, they have been incorporated into the ranks of the Ugandan military and have received training, weapons and pay.

The Arrow Boys also protect the region against raids by the Karamajong, the notorious neighbouring ethnic group that has a reputation as cattle rustlers.

“They kill our people when they come,” said Adiama. “They steal our cattle.”

One Arrow Boys commander recently ordered Karamojong cattle rustlers to be shot on sight. The order has resulted in three deaths, one by hanging and decapitation.

“We are not an aggressive people,” insisted Adiama. “If they (Karamajong) want our cows, they can buy them. If they think we have their cows, take us to court.” Otherwise, he says, “armed men stealing cows should be shot”.

Because of years of attacks by the LRA and the Karamajong, thousands of Teso people live in the protected refugee camps serviced by the World Food Programme.

But this, he says, has created social problems, “The people of Teso are not used to camp life. It is like being in prison.”

Although some in the Arrow Boys recently have been accused of selling weapons for cash, skimming money from payrolls and random violence, it has not dampened local enthusiasm for them.

“They rescued me from the LRA,” said Daniel Emoru, a 40-year-old who rides a bicycle and sells pottery.

His father-in-law was killed by rebels and children from his village were taken. But with the Arrow Boys, he says, “We feel safe because the rebels no longer roam the area.”

In the village of the Arasai, where just two years ago the LRA killed 20 villagers and kidnapped four children, one of whom is still missing, the Arrow Boys are admired.

“If possible, they should increase their numbers,” said one villager as he and others played the traditional African game of komweso.

“They have worked hard,” said Jackie Okurut, 45, who weaves rope in the shade of his tiny stall at the Arapai market. “We are now in peace because they did good. Let them continue their work because the Karamajong are still bothering us.”

Under the shady pavilions where they serve malwa, the sentiment is the same. “We are now safe,” said Celestion Elibu, one of the patrons, “but we are still haunted by the memory of our dead relatives.”

Most still turn a wary eye to the north where the LRA remains active. Because of them and the Karamajong, the Arrow Boys remains a vital regional defense force.

“I have a lot of hope the security will improve as long as the government remains stable,” said Adiama, but quickly added, “while the LRA is active, the region is vulnerable.”

Peter Eichstaedt is a senior editor with the Uganda Radio Network. URN correspondent Joseph Elunya contributed to this report.

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